If it seems like forever since the first season of Stranger Things became a pop culture sensation, that’s because, at least at the speed-of-sound pace that the world is moving now, it was. It was a whopping 15 months ago, in July 2016, that we were heralding the return of Winona Ryder, theorizing about who Eleven was, gushing over the adorable gang of child actors, demanding justice for Barb, and bingeing our way through the Upside Down.
Creators and twin brothers Matt and Ross Duffer uncannily summoned the spirit of ’80s-era Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, and even John Carpenter to stitch together this patchwork quilt of period influences, earning the series rightful comparisons to the sci-fi terror of Alien, the horror tension of Poltergeist, the push-pull of paranoia and sweetness of ET, and the endearing depiction of young friendship of Stand By Me.
Proving just how much the series was onto something in the zeitgeist, the arrival of Season 2 of Stranger Things on Friday comes amid a renaissance of sorts of borrowed ’80s genre tropes, from Get Out to Split, with It going so far as to even cast Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhard in the film’s breakout role. The Stranger Things effect at the box office only makes returning to the series that kicked it off more eventful—something that works both for and against the new episodes, which struggle to live up to the monstrously high expectations most of us will have.
Stranger Things 2 is a much slower burn than the first season, for which pressing Netflix’s “Play Next” button wasn’t so much a choice but a mandate during the twist- and adrenaline-filled binge. Things don’t really start to take off until midway through the new season. While it might be frustrating to have sat through nearly 300 minutes of television only to realize not much has happened, the Duffer Brothers have constructed such a rich, vibrant universe and populated it with such entertaining characters—those kids really are a hoot—that it’s still fun to go along for the ride, slower though it is.
When we left off in Season 1, Will (Noah Schnapp) had been rescued from the Upside Down, but was last seen regurgitating some sort of slimy slug and having a mysterious vision. Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) disappeared after using her powers to destroy the Demogorgon, and Hopper (David Harbour) was leaving Eggo waffles in the woods, hinting that Eleven might still be alive. If any of that makes sense to you then you’re in good shape for season two.
What’s interesting about the way things ended is how many unanswered questions there were for viewers. We still didn’t know much about the Upside Down, the Demogorgon or where it came from, Eleven’s powers, or what happened to Will while he was missing. The characters are similarly in the dark, something the Duffer Brothers told Variety was intentional: “By the end of the show they don’t know or understand everything. That is purposeful.”
That sets up a completely different arc for Season 2. While the first season was focused on trying to find Will and figure out the Upside Down, Season 2 is about the aftermath now that they’ve found him and know the Upside Down exists. The immediate byproduct is that there’s less at stake, which is never good for a drama, but it does open the world a bit, allowing the characters to essentially embark on a fact-finding mission. We just wish they’d get to the answers faster.
So what actually is going on? We’re maddeningly forbidden from telling you virtually anything about the plot by the Netflix mafia. Most annoying is that we can’t divulge anything about Eleven, because it’s actually the most intriguing of the different narrative threads the Duffers have cast out.
We can say that there’s a small jump, with the series picking up nearly a year after the events of the first season. Will is having a series of episodes in which he briefly falls into a catatonic state and envisions the world around him enveloped by the vine-like tentacles of the Upside Down. Ever the helicopter fretter mom, Joyce (Winona Ryder) is determined to find out what’s going on with him, and doesn’t buy his doctor’s suggestion that it’s simply PTSD triggered by the looming anniversary of his disappearance.
What’s going on with Will is the central question of the first half of the season; it’s the primary preoccupation of Joyce, Will’s friends, and even Hopper. There are a few side threads, including all the things we can’t tell you about Eleven and Nancy and Jonathan’s plans to avenge Barb’s death, but the amount of time spent on whatever is going on with Will becomes more and more frustrating the longer the show delays answers.
There’s a handful of new characters to fill up some of the time. In a cheeky casting move, Sean Astin joins as a romantic interest for Joyce, which is cute considering how the Stranger Things kids are veritable descendants of the Goonies kids, and Paul Reiser, harkening back to his Aliens days, plays a scientist at Hawkins Labs who says his main concern is to make sure the events from Season 1 don’t happen again.
They’re great, and the performances from the core cast are as fun as ever. Harbour’s Sheriff Hopper is still TV’s best beleaguered blowhard. Ryder’s performance is still wild; she delivers lines in some bizarre, stilted accent like she’s a foreign actress doing her damndest to pronounce American English properly, and she barely blinks once all season. The kids are still adorable, made more so by how much their acting chops have improved from the first season. Fan favorite Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin is given more to do, and rises to the occasion.
But the real reason that Stranger Things 2 works, despite its crawling pace, is the feeling it elicits. Radiating a mood or a spirit isn’t an easy feat, especially when that mood or spirit is meant to transport you back to a different time period.
It’s still a marvel, not only in how meticulously the series recreates the ’80s, but in how well it recreates ’80s film motifs. It’s an unusual, remarkable practice, to basically make an ’80s film but, with the advantage of time to have studied those films and for filmmaking tools to have evolved, better than what would have been possible back then. People call it nostalgia, or an homage, but it’s actually a recreation.
Despite its awards-show attention and popularity, it’s safe to say that last season, Stranger Things wasn’t exactly the best show on television. But it was unequivocally the most fun. That’s where fans can breathe easy. There are nits to pick about the new season’s plots and pacing. But in the end, it’s still a hell of a lot of fun to watch.